I always liked the smell of cheap hotels. Even when I was a child I knew that the combination of burnt coffee, ashtrays, bleach, and chlorine meant that we were on the move. My parents mostly stayed in Holiday Inn type places, but there was the occasional Motel 6, where the numbered, multi-colored doors faced the parking lot and we would be herded in and put to sleep before we heard the sounds of domestic violence or mercenary sex. My dad even let us put quarters in the vibrating beds. We thought it was a ride: “Do it again, do it again!” we would shout, unable to appreciate the inappropriate nature of our exclamations. My parents would exchange futile glances and shrug, throwing us each another quarter.
It wasn’t just the smell of cheap hotels. I also liked the smell of gasoline and the way that it clung to my hair. Standing by the pump, you could almost taste it when it got humid. Rest stops, gas stations, and highway diners, brought comforts with kitsch, and infused me with a passion for wanderlust. My first memory is sitting in the back of a car, the sun is too hot on my legs, but I am looking out the window, mesmerized by the way the world gets fuzzy in motion.
There is something dirty about travel, something implied, not only in the smell of motels, gas stations, fast food wrappers, and truckers, but in the lifestyle. The waywardness of a nomad; the dirtiness of being homeless.
On one of our road trips to California, my mother, a staunch Catholic, and one of the most compassionate, but guilt-ridden, human beings I know, decided to pick up a Mexican girl and drive her from Tacoma, Washington to L.A. All I remember was that it was some kind of 7 degrees of separation situation, probably a network of helping hands, where my mother learned that this 19 year old was suffering from a drug addiction and an abusive boyfriend. She had no food, no money, and needed a ride to find her father. She was homeless or on the way to being so. In a swift act of Christian charity, we drove south, my mother, my brother, sister, the Mexican girl, and me, trundling towards Hollywood in a Chevy Minivan.
Her name was Rosario and she sat, her skin taut and clear, pulled tighter with a ponytail, listening to a Walkman and staring out the window. She didn’t speak. At first we thought she didn’t speak English until after crossing the California border she said she had to go to the bathroom. I wanted to ask her about what happened, how she got the black eye, and whether she even wanted to go to L.A. Like many acts of charity, we wanted to believe we were doing her some huge favor. Her stoicism and dark glances made me think she didn’t even want the ride.
Traveling often connotes an escape, a life left behind, a reason to be on the move: crime, love, or debts. When I was younger, I thought that there must be something deeply wrong with Rosario. I was fascinated by her story, her troubles, a complex narrative I couldn’t quite grasp from the walls of our suburban home. I was petrified and intrigued, and knew she was still living on the outside of that family minivan. That was the divide and Rosario felt it clearly. She smelled pity like we smelled cigarettes from the pockets of her leather jacket.
On the third day, Rosario was comfortable eating our road snacks and digging into our bags of candy. She even let my brother borrow her mixed tape for a few hours. That night, like any other kids indulging in the motel experience, we dove in the pool. After smoking a cigarette, Rosario opened the sliding door to the small room and explained in a whisper that she didn’t have a swimsuit. My mother offered her a swimsuit to borrow and we spent the evening doing cannonballs, diving beneath the surface of the over- chlorinated pool.
Rosario was something of a legend. She never said good bye and when we dropped her off, it was sketchy. I think we left her with the estranged father outside a gas station. I wondered about what her life was like once she got to California—maybe she became a stripper. Maybe she and her father both got deported. Maybe she got on the first flight home back to Seattle. We never found out what happened to her.
I suspect my mother felt we had done our part. At least she wasn’t homeless. Rosario just needed to be somewhere, she just needed to land.